The Bourne films worked as well as they did due to an efficiency that bordered on fetishistic. Not a word or a shot wasted with all details used to forward the momentum, unless characterization was involved, which also provided a push. Damon embodied an assassin to perfection by following that ethic, every move calculated, every gesture speaking on his behalf. Any attempt to ape the Bourne films will stumble unless that efficiency is also copied. Along those lines, Safe House stumbles a portion of the time with too many lulls between occasionally engaging action scenes. Still, it is entertaining on its own terms, though it brings nothing new to an entire subgenre of spy thriller about corrupt and slimy intelligence agencies.
It makes some difference that it is shot in Cape Town, providing new and interesting places to have shootouts and car chases. As one of the most photogenic cities on the planet, Cape Town has a remarkable coastline and unique architecture basking in the midst of one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges. There really should be a ban on films shot in Los Angeles or New York in favor of Moscow, Johannesburg, or Kinshasa. If the screenplay fails you, at least the scenery can inspire something of interest. Ryan Reynolds plays a CIA low level agent who is a housekeeper, minding a safehouse in the unlikely event an interrogation or shelter is needed. Denzel Washington plays the Christ figure/former CIA operative who is, as per usual, The Best There Is. As a rogue operative, he went underground selling secrets after burning out on the job. As a traitor of the highest order, he is assumed to be a great catch when he walks into the United States consulate in Cape Town. Reynolds must step up when a heavily armed merc unit annihilates the house and everyone in it, and Reynolds and his dangerous prisoner are on the run. From there, it is a mad dash of unlikely detective work to find out who is trying to kill them. This being a movie about the corrupt and slimy CIA, it is no surprise that the CIA is trying to kill them. It is difficult to tell if this is a reveal to us or just to Reynolds, who traverses the character arc of naive patriot to jaded whistleblower. No spoilers, you understand. You’ve seen this one before.
The action scenes are shot well enough, and several hundred crates of bullets were expended in firefights that render every building in South Africa as porous as a colander. Denzel is fun to watch as an unkillable badass, though his character is required to take this way too seriously to allow it to be too fun. After all, he must teach his pupil Not Ethan Hawke that the world is a terrible place and that his country is as likely to get him as promote him. Reynolds takes way too long to learn this, but then such stupidity does allow additional bone crunching fight scenes that would leave ten such humans dead of multiple organ trauma and several gallons of blood loss. When you get stabbed in what looks like the spleen, you do not walk back to Cape Town in peak condition unless you are like the guys in Final Fight who heal flail chest with a turkey leg. Whatever. This is a dumb action movie, and it will do.
What bugs me is that Safe House seems to want to teach a Life Lesson. I suppose here it is that our government is as corrupt as any other, which is a whipped dead horse reduced to a fine paste. And some of those government lackeys use their position to feather their nest, a lesson nobody needed to hear again. Or maybe that Truth Shall Set Us Free, which is probably true in some sense, but rang false here. If a whistleblower released an avalanche of information about some hateful activities done in the name of Freedom, then the public would initially be pissed, then overwhelmed, and bored within the same 24 hour news cycle. During Bush 43’s tenure, so many reports were released detailing comically dishonest practices that after the first dozen scandals, nobody really cared anymore. The sheer volume of details that alone would cause outrage simply inspired a new level of apathy. In one interesting scene, the CIA has a hold of Denzel and is about to interrogate him. Before a single question is asked, they go straight to waterboarding. Still, the trope dictates that good guys resist torture, and bad guys unfailingly yield useful information – both rules hold true here. The last line of the movie, though, is a nicely delivered zinger. You’ll see what I mean.
Safe House wants to walk a moral road, but is awash in immorality. Murder of innocents is decried, but it happens here with impunity. Order is desired, but chaos is the only language in the film. Safe House is damaged throughout by wanting to have every issue both ways, instead of being content to be efficient and dangerous fun. In that regard it delivers some solid action scenes, and makes passable use of the South African scenery, though nowhere near enough. The quiet moments dragged with portentous dialogue long enough to let my mind rewrite killer chase scenes where the cars race down the Chapman Peak Highway after skidding down Signal Hill, race through the Garden Route, and the bad guys overturn in a river so one gets bitten in half by a hippo. It could totally happen, and would allow for a wealth of postmortem one-liners.